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Ally Barnes doesn’t call attention to herself. She isn’t the sort of person who tries to leave a dramatic first impression. But spend a little time with Ally, and you realize she’s doing something more powerful and useful. She’s listening, observing, and thinking about how to get her community of Sarcoxie, Missouri, to become more engaged and successful.
Ally puts the spotlight on the residents of Sarcoxie, a city of about 1,300 residents in southwest Missouri. She wants to show residents what they can accomplish when they get active and work together. By all accounts, she’s making progress – and then some.
Ally grew up in Sarcoxie. After moving away for several years as a young adult, Ally returned to her hometown and found her own unique way to make a difference. To understand Ally, you need to know more about Sarcoxie.
Ally Barnes: Sarcoxie’s “Community Engagement Officer”
Like many other rural communities across the country, Sarcoxie has had some economic challenges. What used to be a small, bustling community is now tinged with a bit of neglect. Venting about the current state of the town is how some may seek to confront the problem, but Ally does not have time for idle chatter. Where others might see as an empty store front, Ally sees enormous potential. Perhaps identifying opportunity is what Ally does.
Where does her resolve come from? Is it ignorance or arrogance? Is it a function of being a cancer survivor and not having the luxury to dwell on the potential of unsavory outcomes?
Systematically Reinvigorating a Town’s Spirit
Ally does not have an official title, but her email address provides a clue. On the town’s email server, her ID is “eventguru.” Ally is the only person in history to win the Sarcoxie Chamber Person of the Year twice. These accolades are simply a testament of what Ally means to Sarcoxie. She’s the town’s unofficial community engagement officer.
What does that mean? It is simple: Like a good guide, mentor, or coach, her job is to try to help the community realize its potential. To achieve this vision Ally works very closely with the mayor, a local pastor, business leaders, and active residents. Jointly they are engaging every part of the community (the youth, senior citizens, business leaders, citizens at large). By strategically organizing local festivals, events, celebrations, and volunteer community clean-ups, they have ensured that every citizen has an opportunity to participate in the rejuvenation of the town.
The Response to “I Heart Sarcoxie” Events
So is the effort working? Here, thankfully we have some data to understand the impact of the effort. By applying simple quantitative analysis on the impact of the community outreach efforts, we can gauge which programs in Sarcoxie are having a positive impact and which programs are not. This assessment is part of a community development process called Growing Rural Ozarks, or GRO, sponsored by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks and USDA Rural Development. The assessment will be conducted annually, through a five-question survey. Already, Sarcoxie’s scores have exceeded expectations.
Residents are asked to respond to the following question on a scale from 1-10: How enthusiastic are you about the direction in which the community is headed? Sarcoxie’s average score is 7 out of 10.
While this may seem like an unimpressive score at first glance, when you dive into the numbers what you see is that roughly half of responders gave the community a score of 8 or higher. It is also worth noting that we have conducted this same survey in over a dozen communities, and Sarcoxie stands out. An average community enthusiasm score never surpasses 5.5.
The story of Ally and Sarcoxie is important for a several reasons. Sarcoxie isn’t unique in the issues it is facing. Overall, rural population isn’t growing and poverty is getting worse for many small towns.
In this context, the leaders in these communities are seeking the magical potion that can move the community back on the trajectory of economic progress. The reality is that this answer won’t come from the outside. It lies within the hearts and minds of its citizens.
As communities seek to change their trajectory, they should seek their own Ally. Look for the passionate resident who is willing to put in the time and energy because they have an innate drive to see their community improve. While every community has this type of leadership, we often do not empower such leaders to do the community work that they seek.
To survive, rural America must find and empower its own Ally Barnes.
Hrishue Mahalaha is an economic advisor who works with small cities to help them enact economic and community development strategies. His work in Sarcoxie, Missouri, is supported by the Community Foundation of The Ozarks and USDA Rural Development.